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War under the Volcano

With over 40,000 tourists climbing Kilimanjaro today, it’s one of the world’s most popular adventure destinations, but its popularity is a fairly recent phenomenon.

For nearly a century after Germany’s Hans Meyer was the first to successfully summit Kilimanjaro in 1889, not much stirred on the mountain except its glaciers which were in meltdown. It wasn’t until 1912 before the first commercial climb was mounted. By the time Rev. Richard Gustavovich Reusch summited in 1926 and planted the Christian flag he was just the seventh man to sign the register left by Meyer.

The age of African exploration inspired Meyer and his competitors to climb Kilimanjaro, but that era petered out early in the 20th century. Kilimanjaro’s mysteries were thought to be solved. Meyer measured and mapped it while finding a 600 foot deep frozen crater at its summit. The age of tourism to German controlled Tanganyika was not even in the nascent stage and World War I put the damper on commercial climbs for over a decade.

You could have easily been killed trying to bag Kili during the war. The Germans tried to fend off the Brits who poured into Tanganyika from neighboring Kenya. Fire fights were common in Moshi and on the slopes of the mountain during the war. While the Germans and Brits sustained losses in the low thousands, the indigenous population got hammered. Around 20 percent of the African people in German East Africa died of disease and starvation brought by the war. Another 90,000 porters working for the Brits were killed in the conflict.

When Rev. Reusch arrived in Marangu in 1923 to set up his mission, the area was still recovering. It was Reusch over the next three decades who championed Kilimanjaro and planted the seeds for its emergence in the last 20 years of the century. The inner crater on Kibo the highest of Kili’s three volcanic cones is named for Reusch and rightly so.

Son of Kibo

Born in 1891 along Russia’s Volga River, Reusch as a young man rode in the loyal Russian cavalry fighting the Bolsheviks. In many ways he was a latter day Sir Richard Francis Burton of Mountains of the Moon fame. Reusch could speak 15 African languages but instead of having sex with the natives as Burton reveled in, he tried to convert them to his Lutheran beliefs. Despite Reusch’s short stature or maybe because of it, he tirelessly lifted weights and climbed Kilimanjaro. He made over 60 summit climbs and on one of his first ascents took a picture of a frozen leopard at the summit. He cut off one of the leopard’s ears and that photo would later inspire Ernest Hemingway. It would also inspire many to wonder— what the hell was a leopard doing in the snowfields of Kilimanjaro? Snow leopards are an Asian species.

Reusch started the East African Mountain Club and it was the club that essentially ran Kilimanjaro until the Tanzanian government took it over in 1973 by forming the National Parks. The club built several huts on the mountain in the 1920s and Reusch trained the locals to become mountain guides. He became an advocate for Masai rights and they called him “son of Kibo.”

“Through language, metaphor, humor, self-deprecation, dramatic timing and telling stories in the Oriental tradition, Reverend Reusch altered the perception of the world for himself and others,” writes Daniel Johnson in his biography of Reusch.

It took an outsized personality like Reusch to alter the perception of hiking Kilimanjaro. It didn’t have to be a death defying all or nothing glacier-carving expedition. It could be a three day excursion to the saddle for nature study and enjoying the incomparable views. He wanted to put it on the traveler’s map in the pre-TV era and saw its potential as a multi-faceted destination. It could be for adventure, a scientific expedition, or spiritual renewal.

Any traveling dignitary or scientist was drawn to Reusch who encouraged them to hike the mountain and he would arrange their transport up the mountain for a fee. Effectively he was the first Kilimanjaro tour operator. In 1935 England’s David Lack the father of evolutionary ecology made a three day climb reaching Kilimanjaro’s 14,500 foot saddle before he got altitude sickness. Lack birded along the way recording numerous species and was accompanied by two porters and a cook all trained by the reverend. Lack’s suitcase was carried on the porter’s head. From the Bismarck Hut at 8,500 feet Lack wrote:

“The eastern sky was magnificent, looking that way one saw a landscape of plains and distant hills, finally the sea with capes, bays and estuaries with the smoke of ships in the distance, all against the red sky.” To the people back home in gray and drizzly Britain, Kilimanjaro must have seemed vibrant and exotic.

For the Reverend, trips like Lack’s were also a way to raise money for his mission, although Lack’s trek only cost three pounds. Reusch’s mission was funded by the Lutheran Church in Leipzig, Germany, but when Hitler came to power he forbid German churches to support foreign missionaries. To help fund the mission, Reusch sold butterfly collections of African species he collected on the mountain as well as guiding Europeans on climbing expeditions. By 1939, 40 people attempted to summit and five made it, but by 1965, 1,000 climbers tried to summit. Between Reusch’s seeds and Hemingway’s stories, Kilimanjaro was moving on to the world stage.

Snows of Kilimanjaro

Hemingway made two trips to Africa 20 years apart, but it was his 1933 trip to Kenya and Tanganyika that inspired his short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” The story and later film would put the mountain in front of millions of Americans and Europeans firing their imaginations.

Hemingway opened the short story with this paragraph:

“Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai ‘Ngaje Ngai’, the House of God. Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”

Kilimanjaro is actually 19,341 feet high and the rest of Hemingway’s story has little to do with climbing it. By using Kilimanjaro to frame his story, Hemingway created curiosity about it. Hemingway spent no time climbing Kilimanjaro, but saw Reusch’s photo of the frozen leopard. To this day that frozen fury carcass remains among Kilimanjaro’s unsolved mysteries.

Most of Hemingway’s safari was spent hunting in the Serengeti and Lake Manyara or fighting a nasty bout of amoebic dysentery that required a Nairobi hospital stay. He was being guided by Philip Hope Percival who hosted Teddy Roosevelt on his 1909 safari that Hemingway wanted to replicate. The short story is about a depressed writer trying to get his act together and blames just about everything – such as hooch and women – for his failure to write. He assures the reader that being on the mountain is far more inspirational and healthy for a creative soul than being stuck down on the plains.

The well-reviewed story inadvertently provided the catalyst for many of today’s climbers. Kilimanjaro is that magical place that can provide a spiritual and physical catharsis that we all need to shred our self-limiting demons.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro debuted in 1936 in the widely circulated Esquire Magazine, but perhaps the story’s greatest impact was the 1952 film version. Shot in Technicolor, the vast sweeps of Kenyan savanna backstopped by the mysterious snow-capped Kilimanjaro was visually stunning in the black and white 1950s. The movie racked up a whopping $12.5 million at the U.S. box office while gaining a nomination for a Cinematography Oscar. Starring Gregory Peck along with hotties Ava Gardner and Susan Hayward the movie planted more seeds— Africa and Kilimanjaro is a beautiful, sexy place that could change your life for the better, but it was dangerous. In the short story, Harry the main character, succumbs from his wounds, but his spirit soars. The movie version had a happier Hollywood ending.

Hemingway never saw the film, detesting the upbeat ending. He pocketed the big pay check and spent it on his 1955 return to Africa where he nearly died in two plane crashes. Newspapers inaccurately reported Hemingway and his fourth wife dead.

Anyone who makes his or her living on the mountain today serving thousands of international trekkers should thank Reverend Reusch and Papa Hemingway. They were among the first to see the mountain’s majestic complexity, inspiring our quest to walk it and be shaped by it.

Kilimanjaro Climb summit